Getting Something Done this Lent

On Ash Wednesday our lives round the bend on the road to Jerusalem only to find the hordes of Babylon blocking our way. We are marked with the cross and there can be no avoidance of the fight.  This is the imagery used by the nineteenth century Anglican, Father Congreve, SSJE to describe the “advance of Lent.” I can hardly think of anything more appropriate for our meditation:

Lent awakens spiritual hope in us, just as the sight of the enemy awakes the spirit of an army. They were lagging just now, tired with the march, dispirited; but a sudden signal, one turn in the road, shows them the enemy’s lines stretching right across their way. How the men’s hearts leap up: who is [wearied] now? So Lent awakes the energy of hope by showing us our enemy, the reality of the battle of life, of our conflict with evil. We all know that our fifty or seventy years in this world were given to us for a great achievement–to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil, to win holiness for eternity; but we easily forget this, and slip out of range. But Lent rallies us, reminds us of the seriousness of our moral life, of the reality of sin, of bad tendencies of our childhood not conquered yet, of the strength of sins of the flesh, of pride and temper, of love of the world, of cowardice in confessing Christ, of sloth and depression, of neglect of prayer and the sacraments.

The Two Standards

Though Congreve was not Catholic, his imagery reflects one of the most important metaphors used by St. Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises, namely, the two standards.   Christ and Satan are captains of two immense armies that rally around them in the respective regions of Jerusalem and Babylon.  For St. Ignatius, this a fundamental image of the spiritual life: mortal strife, that can have only one of two outcomes, heaven or hell.

The strategy of Satan is as simple as it is deadly.  St. Ignatius tells us that the demons are sent forth by the Prince of Darkness to tempt us with love for the world:  a “longing for riches,” “vain honor” and “vast pride.”  He says that it is this love for the world  by which he opens the door to every other vice.

But the assets laid to bear against Satan by the Lord are more powerful: “highest poverty,”contumely and contempt, and “humility.”  As with the “beatitudes.”  This is an inversion of values, the paradox of the gospel:  life through death, going up by being brought down.

The Hardest Road

How is a man to in the word but not of the world? How is a man to be a soldier, a knight, and a courageous man without the arrogance and pride that are the tools of Satan? How are we to fight Satan without capitulating to his manipulative and dishonorable methods? In a word, how are we to be wise as serpent and simple as doves? (cf. Mt 10:16).

The first step consists in recognizing that the road that Our Lord took is the hardest road.  He remained in the fight to the end and at the same time never sought His own glory and good, but glory of His Father and our salvation.  This is the humility of which St. Ignatius speaks.  Here is Father Hardon’s commentary on the two standards in which he recommends humility, calmness of spirit and the discernment of spirits as the particular means by which we fight under the standard of Christ and overcome the devil.

Our battle is first of all one that must take place within, but for it to be brought to a victory for Christ, it must be extended to the ends of the earth.  It is a fight that we must never concede.

The Abomination of Desolation

Anthony Esolen has written an excellent article, entitled, Where the Battle Was Not Fought, in which he chronicles the woes of the Church in Canada. (Not to pick on Canada, we have our own similar problems in the U.S.) Esolen notes that there is really no place for men, because no one wants to fight, and because virtually no effort has been made to attract men to the faith, let alone to the priesthood.

The spiritual apathy of men, and by which men no longer have a place in the Church—a fight conceded or never fought—leaves us in a desperate situation.  For far two long our leaders have largely derelict of their duty, and we are left with the extremes of effeminacy and bravado.

Battle Scars

The solution consists in the rigors of an examined life that is bold enough to make mistakes and get hurt, and humble enough to reassess and revise in order to get it right.  This has to happen both spiritually and externally.

Recently, Dawn Eden and William Doino wrote a piece for Busted Halo, in which they called into question the adaptation of Saul Alinsky’s radicalized activist philosophy by conservatives being used against the expert liberal practitioners of that philosophy.  In particular, the writers criticized activist James E. O’Keefe for his syncretistic melding of the ideas of Alinsky and that of G.K. Chesterton, and for his practical application of that thinking which included the questionable participation of a young woman who posed as a prostitute in his ACORN exposé videos.  Eden and Doino, underscored the utilitarian ethics at the heart of O’Keefe’s methods, taken right out of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “in war the end justifies almost any means.” In a subsequent interview Dawn Eden did not fail to mention that the work of Lila Rose, with whom O’Keefe has also collaborated, and who has been given favorable treatment on AirMaria, is not above critical review.

In response, Christian Hartsock, has penned, or should I say, slashed a rather purple piece of vitriol worthy of Keith Olbermann, in which he ostensibly adopts another rule from Alinsky’s playbook: “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”  A comparison between the Eden/Doino essay and that of Hartsock, is the difference between a consideration of principles in view of success and a disregard of them justified by success.  We can leave everyone free to consider the question, but that the question ought to be considered, seems a difficult thing to reject.  That certainty may be something that Alinsky would ridicule, but it is not something that Chesterton would make fun of. On the contrary, for Chesterton such philosophical considerations belonged to the most practical order:

But there are some people, nevertheless—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.

The Philosophy of Light

For Chesterton, this consideration of his enemy’s philosophy was not merely a tactical necessity, but a metaphysical and moral requirement, as he infers when he considers the philosophy of George Bernard Shaw.  He says that while his intellectual enemy was  genuinely “brilliant” and “honest,” his philosophy was “quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”  A man’s philosophy has consequences in the practical order, and so the practical thing to do is

. . . revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.

Activism, or better, Catholic Action, will ultimately be fruitful only if it is an examined energy, like our own moral lives.  It is the hardest road.  It is not the merely the rough and tumble road of unchecked prowess, nor is it comfy road of the false courtesy of human respect.  It is the hardest road of Christian chivalry.  And it is the only way of  really “getting something done.”

This is the road we find ourselves on this Ash Wednesday, and the hellish hosts from Babylon will not part and let us pass unmolested.  The fight is on, but it begins, continues and ends first within our hearts.  Yet, it is always to be fought in the midst of the world that must be conquered for Christ.

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Almighty Humility

Tomorrow night I will be speaking to the men’s discussion group about the mystery of Christmas, in particular about how omnipotence and humility come together in what Anthony Esolen calls Child Everlasting:

But can we see the wonder from the other direction? It may be that the child Jesus does not conceal omnipotence so much as reveal what it really means to be omnipotent. That’s because the Word through whom were made the heavens and the earth was from before the foundations of the world the Word who would be made flesh: It is a world made to be redeemed by that child.

Perhaps Esolen is playing on Chesterton’s Everlasting Man:

Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet. Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanization of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows I as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

There is something momentous to be learned by men from the God of hosts who chose the path of childhood as the expression of his omnipotence.  Kings from far away bow down, and the king in whose jurisdiction He is born fears him and sends soldiers to kill Him.  What is it about the Virgin Mother and the stable of Bethlehem that reveals so much of what it means to be the King of Kings.

How can men surrender to the mystery of Christ’s condescension without surrendering their dignity, responsibility and strength as men, husbands and fathers?

Losing Neverland

Mary Martin1

Yesterday I happened upon a YouTube video of the inimitable Danny Kaye in the role of Captain Hook, singing of pirate philosophy in the TV production of Peter Pan with Mia Farrow in the title role and score by Anthony Newley (1975).  Hook, who personifies a kind of anti-chivalry, is the nemesis of Peter Pan, the perpetual boy who refuses to become a man.  Peter Pan, though he represents an opposite extreme from Hook, cannot be considered chivalrous either.  Neither Hook nor Pan are real men.  Captain Hook has indulged his brutality and Peter Pan his puerile fantasies.

I have been reflecting a great deal lately on the virtues of prowess and courtesy.  One of the classic summaries of chivalric virtues is a fivefold division:  fidelity, honesty, courtesy, prowess and largess.  In my opinion perhaps the most common extremes to which men go in terms of masculinity runs along the line that extends between prowess and courtesy.

Prowess is not only courage, but also the magnificence by which a man invests himself into a great work without counting the cost.  Prowess makes a man truly prepared for battle; however, where it is not balanced against courtesy, men simply become brutal and are committed to win “by hook or by crook,” as the pirate says:

Hit him with a hammer when his noggin is turned.
Kick his teeth in.
This is the philosophy I have learned.
And never be concerned about how you win.
Just delight that you’re winning at all.

Always fight somebody frail and small.
At first you charm or flatter him
And gently chitter-chatter him,
Then suddenly you batter him on the chin
And simply shatter him;
It doesn’t matter how you win.

On the other hand, courtesy is a high-minded regard for the person, no matter who he or she is.  It is the unbending standard of fair play, by which we rule every engagement of love or war, and everything in between.  It is not merely manners, but includes them, for it begins in the mind and heart and flows from there into a man’s every word and deed. However, if it is not balanced against prowess it becomes misguided compassion or self-serving suavité.

And it is precisely for this reason that, while Captain Hook personifies prowess gone awry, Peter Pan does not represent a kind of misplaced compassion.  No, the intransigent boy is too narcissistic to be guilty of maternal sentimentality.  On the contrary, when Wendy wants to take the boys of Neverland to her home in London, Peter obstinately refuses to go with them and gives everyone a self-justifying lecture:

I’ve got no time for growing up.
When you’ve got time don’t waste it.
Taste it, each and any way you chose.
Use each lovely moment.
Youth is too good to lose.
Raise your voice and make your choice.
If you’ve got youth, rejoice!

Peter Pan is a cocky adolescent with a self-serving idealism.  If there is misplaced compassion here, it is directed entirely inward, where Peter lives.  Neverland is a state of mind, where one indulges the fantasy of being the center of the universe.  Neverland is ever the land of our age.

Even the presence of evil in Neverland only serves to focus Pan’s ego on himself.  One wonders if Captain Hook is a dragon of Pan’s own making, the archetypical villain devised for the adventures of Neverland, much like the villains created by college-age zealots who since the sixties have prided themselves on being radical when, in fact, their rebellion is so much a pose, like the fashions that go along with “activism,” such as perennially in-style Che T-shirt.

Isn’t that the lie of so much activist pacifism?  In reality it’s just another form of fascism, where men are threatened—not with guns but with adjectives like “lowbrow” and “narrow-minded,” and are silenced—not by force but by public opinion.

The perennial teenager desires neither war nor peace.  He wants tolerance at all costs, especially of everything he believes in and desires.  He shouts down opposition in the name of tolerance as long as it is politically correct to do so.  Opponents of same-sex marriage, for instance, are said to be bigots and have to pay for answering honestly a direct question put to them.

Peter Pan adventures are controlled scenarios, where the only possible peril is a threat to the ego.  Hence, so many controversies today are conflated well beyond their concrete significance because of injured teenage sensibilities.

We live in an age of manufactured outrage. Teenage snottiness is often self-righteous anger against the curtailing of one’s narcissism in the name of personal rights, as when activists engage in civil disobedience, provoke law enforcement officers and then are outraged when they get arrested.

In our entertainment culture, where we are encouraged to indulge our puerile fantasies, danger is experienced vicariously through video game avatars and special effects enhanced movie characters.  People become dull to the real peril waiting for them at the dinner table and are incapable of addressing the threats to their families and future, and then shake their fists at the ethereal dragons of Neverland.

And this is the real difference between the misplaced compassion of a woman and the puerile self-absorption of the perpetual teenager.  A boy who refuses to become a man is neither an immature child nor a sentimental woman, but an androgynous, effete and undefined entity.  It is at least significant, then, that actresses have generally been employed to play the role of Peter Pan. The look is androgynous, but worse yet, so is the spirit.

We have even coined terms to define the new hip infantilism:  twixters and parasite singles.  They are unable to decide whether or when they want to grow up, meanwhile they return home after college to live off mommy and daddy and entertain themselves while they contemplate whether they should get a job.  Once upon a time, only one in a million, like Hugh Hefner, could afford not to grow up.  Now with the hyper-management of everything by bureaucracy, we expect someone to always be coddling us.

In this moral climate, men who have never learned to fight in ordinary human conflicts have been so numbed by the artificiality of it all that they join fight clubs just to feel alive.  Feminine and effeminate culture is suffocating them, and getting punched is one of the only solid realities they experience.  Nevertheless, they would rather get a knee to the face than reclaim the even more solid and infinitely more dangerous realities of family life.

The opposite of wanton brutality, derailed prowess, is not always misplaced compassion.  Sometimes it’s just plain old comfy narcissism, and it seems more and more the standard fare.

As winsome as Peter Pan seems, he is really a dull conformist.  His philosophy is that of the world.  The religion of tolerance and the idolization of irresponsible youth is the mantra that several generations now have been taught to repeat.  It is custom, the tradition of our most recent fathers.  Anthony Esolen marks the commandments of this now codified let-down:

Thou shalt not adore. Thou shalt not celebrate with abandon. Thou shalt not honor. Thou shalt not fight. Thou shalt not live under the law of God, but within the parameters of thy keepers.

Neverland is a cage and Peter Pan is too self-absorbed to realize it. Let’s lose it fast.

A Subtle Dragon

glaurung

When I posted last I was poking around a little on Anthony Esolen’s page in the Touchstone archives and found an excellent article on the Quest called “The Lovely Dragon of Choice: The Freedom Not to Be Free.” I think I will make it the topic for discussion at tomorrow night’s men’s discussion group meeting in Griswold.

I recommend a careful reading of the piece. It is worth reading twice.

What I took away from it is the way in which the “Dragon of Choice” has insinuated itself, not only into the hearts of those who consciously purvey the culture of death, but also into the hearts of those who wish to be the champions of life. In fact, life itself is a quest full of adventure, something that is dissolved by calculation and cleverness. Esolen pegs “Modern Man,” and by that I mean not the “other guys” but all of us:

Modern man is afraid of the quest, and is not particularly fond of hunger and cliffs, either. He will not see that the very point of an adventure is that you cannot plan it. And to be in quest of the Holy Grail—that is, the mystery of Christ made manifest in our world under the humble appearances of bread and wine—is to be prepared for the appearance, sudden and awful, even on a bare rock and when one’s stomach knots with hunger, of the ineffable God. Continue reading

More Antifelinism

catwoman

Don’t marry a woman who likes cats but does not like dogs.  You may marry a woman who doesn’t like either, or whose reason for not liking dogs is that one of them bit her when she was a toddler.  But a woman who likes cats but does not like dogs will be a Joan Crawford or Jane Wyman.  Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman, and look how sorry he was about that.

An excerpt from Professor Anthony Esolen’s rules for marriage.  I won’t attribute to him my view on cats, but I have to agree with his rule, and with his other practical admissions on the real differences between men and women.

Hat tip to Other Mary.